Whether it's Bach or Beck that's music to your ears, listening to music while you exercise may improve your fitness, commitment, and enjoyment.
"Music enhances a workout, it makes you work harder without realizing it, and it makes the workout go by faster," says fitness expert Petra Kolber, a spokesperson for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association. "Music takes exercise from just being exercise to being an experience."
Researchers tracked a small group of overweight or obese women over 24 weeks while they dieted, exercised, and met in weekly group sessions promoting lifestyle change. Half the women were given CD players and told to listen to the music of their choice while they walked.
All participants lost weight. Weight loss and reduction in body fat were greater for those who listened to music while they walked.
These women were also more consistent with their exercise, as well as the requirements of the study overall, says researcher Christopher Capuano, PhD. The second factor, he says, is even more significant than the losses.
"Music promoted better compliance with the program," which, in turn, resulted in weight loss, says Capuano, director of the school of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. "It's not that music causes you to lose weight. It causes you to be more adherent."
Capuano adds that music can make exercise seem easier -- or at least keep you from thinking about how hard it is.
"The more unfit you are, the more difficult exercise is," Capuano says. "Music helps break the monotony of exercise and provide a distraction from the physical exertion."
Ken Alan, a personal trainer and the owner of Aerobeat Music, has been mixing music for group classes for two decades now.
"Whether it's classical, rock 'n' roll, heavy metal or rap, if someone enjoys a particular type of music, it can be very motivating to help them get through a workout," Alan says. "It can help the time go by faster and it can reduce the perceived intensity or exertion."
When Tommy Woelfel guides people through an indoor cycling class at Crunch fitness in Los Angeles, he is very attuned to the music.
"I choose music that fits specifically to the chosen activity," he says.
For example, the slow, steady, driving beat of "Running up That Hill," by Placebo (a remake of an old Kate Bush song) takes participants in Woelfel's class up an envisioned incline that they match by adjusting the resistance on their bikes.
"Working with a partner can push you," says Woelfel. "And music can do that, too."
Kolber relies on music for her own workouts: "If I forget my headphones," she says, "sometimes I leave the gym. I just can't work out."
Here are eight tips from our experts on how to choose exercise music and use music to enhance your fitness:
1. Use technology. Surely you remember buying your first album? Or, depending on how early you discovered the joys of music, maybe it was an eight-track tape. Remember spending hours trying to make cassette music mixes for friends? Those days are over. With iTunes and other music downloading web sites, you can easily download a variety of music for your MP3 player, customize your listening system to whatever inspires you, then groove for hundreds of hours.
2. Get personal. If the person next to you is rocking out to "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" by KT Tunstall, but you've never ventured past your Credence Clearwater Revival days, so be it. "Music is very subjective," says Alan. So if you have fine memories of dancing to Madonna and old-school Michael Jackson, don't let your husband talk you into putting an old Kiss song on your playlist.
3. Get rhythm. You don't have to play an instrument or be able to read music to be "musical," says Alan. When exercising to music, many people automatically match the cadence of their movement to the tempo and rhythm of the song that's playing. If you tend to do that, keep it upbeat. You may love the mellow sounds of Josh Groban, but save that for a stretch or Pilates workout, rather than trying to power walk to it.
"Play around," advises Kolber. "Put two songs together with different tempos. Make one a little faster and one slower," and see how it affects your pace. If you tend to match your stride to the beat, she says, it's more important to choose rhythmic songs that will keep your cadence up.
4. Outsmart yourself. Kolber says she creates mixes with a strong, motivating tune every three or four songs, because that's when she tends to fade. Know yourself, she advises. Acknowledge your weak points and stay one step ahead of yourself.
"Right around 25 minutes, when you're just dying to get off, pop in some strong songs during that time to get you through," she says.
5. Make your playlists before you hit the gym. This can be a great stall tactic: Getting to the gym, waiting for your favorite treadmill to become available, then choosing the songs you want to listen to, one by one. You won't get the same workout if you're continually stopping to switch playlists or find a better song. Create your music mix before leaving the house, or, when you have some spare time, create a few workout music mixes to choose from.
6. Explore music. Everywhere from iTunes to Barnes and Noble, you can listen before you buy. And single songs can be purchased for less than a dollar online. It's a great opportunity to check out new artists or even genres of music you're curious about, says Kolber. Just because you don't like country doesn't mean you won't like Lyle Lovett. If you've seen Riverdance four times, download "Countess Cathleen" and see if it inspires you to push yourself that extra five minutes. Or try trading off favorites with friends. Make each other a CD of your favorites, and take that to a workout.
7. Find remixes. Popular music is overplayed on the radio, and can get stale. If you really love to play songs you can sing to, Kolber recommends downloading remixed versions of your favorites. They are usually longer and have a lot more beat behind them (which is great for a workout). On Woelfel's most recent playlists are remixes of "Rocket Man" by Elton John and "Killer 2005" by Seal. Or try using a popular song from a different decade, says Woelfel, like "Good Vibrations" by Marky Mark or Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night" and putting them in the same playlist with the new Christina Aguilera or Black Eyed Peas.
8. Be safe. Keep music volume at a level that will not damage your hearing. "As we're exercising our heart, we don't want to ruin our ears," says Kolber.
Protect yourself, too. When walking or running outside with a headset on, keep the volume low enough to hear outside noises -- like oncoming traffic or a dog charging from the yard you're passing. "Be aware of your surroundings," says Kolber.